Continuing my strange fascination with the old TV series, Naked City, last night I watched an episode in which David Wayne guest-starred as a stock broker who was living not one, not two, not three, not four, but five separate lives. Five, that he admitted to, at any rate. In addition to his life as a stock broker named Herbert Konish, he was a Dr George Ripple, an Episcopalian priest who ran a homeless shelter, a poet who published under the name Byron Jack, a farmer on Staten Island named R.W. Emerson, and a ping-pong champion who called himself Streamer. The cops accidentally stumble upon his multiple identities and, being cops, assume he wouldn't have concocted them unless he had an angle. Under one or more of these identities, they're sure, he's got to be running some kind of scam.
They're flabbergasted, and frustrated, when it turns out that Herbert Konish, Dr Ripple, Byron Jack, R.W. Emerson, and Streamer are, for all intents and purposes, on the up and up. Konish buys and sells stocks, Ripple helps the homeless, Jack writes poetry, Emerson grows vegetables, and Streamer beats all comers at ping pong fair and square, and that's it. The man is, as Lieutenant Mike Parker is grumpily forced to admit, "Four or five honest, law-abiding citizens."
The most they can book him on is impersonating a clergyman, but they're so flummoxed and embarrassed by their own suspicious natures and reflexive misanthropy that they just drop it and cut him loose, without even requiring him to promise to at least defrock Dr Ripple.
The cops, especially Adam Flint, the young detective who's the hero of the series, are also a bit in awe of the guy. They admire his energy and his acting talent, but they're mostly impressed by his organizational genius. They're amazed that he's been able to keep all these identities alive and productive without one impinging on the other. Nobody who knows him in one of these identities knows or even suspects that he's living another life as someone else, let alone as four someone elses.
How he does it intrigues the cops. Why he does it, though, fascinates Flint. Since none of the "men" is doing anything illegal or to be ashamed of, in fact they're all high-achievers with accomplishments worth boasting of, why keep them all secret and separate? They're all really Herbert Konish, so why shouldn't Herbert Konish get credit for all they've done?
Konish says it's because Konish couldn't have done all those things. One man can only put his heart into one thing at time if he's going to do it well. If Konish tried to do everything that Ripple, Jack, Emerson, and Streamer did, in addition to being a successful stock broker, he'd have had to do them as hobbies. He'd have been a stock broker who wrote poetry on the side, or who volunteered to help out at the shelter once in a while, or a weekend farmer. No, all those lives required that the men living them gave them each their full attention. Konish had managed to divide not just his time but himself so that whenever he took on an identity that identity got his full attention. He was heart and soul a poet when he was Jack, heart and soul a farmer when he was Emerson, heart and soul a priest when he was Ripple, and so on. And in this way he was able to pack five lifetimes into one.
The point of the episode---and most episodes of Naked City have a point, it's a rather didactic show in a well-meaning, fashionably late 1950s liberal way---is that most of us, when we're young, have several talents and many interests that could lead us in a variety of directions in life, but the constraints of time and convention require us to settle upon one talent to hone and a single interest to pursue as a career and the result is that we cut away and leave behind important and interesting facets of ourselves. Konish, thanks to an abundance of energy and a possibly fractured personality, was able to avoid having to limit himself and his happiness in that way. Flint is a little jealous and this is where we find out something interesting about Flint's past.
Once upon a time he dreamed of being an professor of literature.
This doesn't come entirely out of the blue. Flint's meant to be something of an intellectual and even a bohemian. He reads a lot and he dates an actress who is something of an intellectual herself---as the creation of writers she's an actress who is in love with the theatre as a poetic and literary art. She's not having much luck breaking through as an actress, but she seems on her way to becoming a director. At any rate, Flint has always seemed like the type who became a cop because he couldn't afford to go to law school right out of college. Turns out that he wrote his senior thesis on Emily Dickinson and he can still recite her poems from memory.
Paul Burke, the actor who played Flint, does a nice job with "I'm nobody? Who are you?" But it also seemed to me he captured something familiar. Flint doesn't just love Emily Dickinson's poetry. He is, or was, in love with Emily Dickinson.
I can't tell you how many poets and English majors I've known who were smitten with Dickinson. Women and men. Gay and straight. For a while back in grad school I thought it was a requirement. You had to prove you had a crush on Dickinson to get admitted into a poetry workshop, and boy was I glad I didn't have any desire to become a poet because I'd have been rejected flat out.
Emily Dickinson is one of the last figures from American literature I can imagine rowing in Eden with.
Not that I spend a lot of time fantasizing about figures from American literature.
Probably this is a failure of imagination on my part. I can't get past the conventional image of Dickinson as the neurosthenic sprite in the white dress hiding in the shadows and refusing to sit in the same room with people she's having a conversation with.
Trolling around the intertubes tonight I stumbled upon an essay in Slate by Christopher Benfey. The essay's titled "Emily Dickinson's secret lover" and it includes this passage:
Emily Dickinson in this constellation is forever the lovelorn spinster, pining away in her father's mansion on Main Street in Amherst, Mass. We assume that the grand passion behind her poems ("Wild nights—Wild nights! Were I with thee") must have had a commensurate inspiration, whether imaginary, superhuman, or divine. Evidence that Dickinson's love life was fairly ordinary, with ordinary temptations and disappointments, doesn't quite fit the bill. Her exile on Main Street has seemed a necessary part of the Dickinson myth, so necessary, indeed, that contrary information—which happens to have been piling up lately—has often been discounted or ignored.
For example, when Mabel Loomis Todd, the vivacious and talented wife of Amherst College astronomer David Todd, was invited to play the piano for Dickinson and her younger sister, Lavinia, in September of 1882, she received a startling warning from their sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, next door. The Dickinson spinster sisters, Sue informed her, "have not, either of them, any idea of morality." Sue added darkly, "I went in there one day, and in the drawing room I found Emily reclining in the arms of a man."
I'm not expecting that this image of Emily Dickinson having not any idea of morality is going to cause her to start starring in my dreams or change my opinions about her poetry, which by the way are mostly appreciative but more like my appreciation for bible verses than like my appreciation for the poetry of Robert Frost or Elizabeth Bishop---a poem of hers will spring to mind like a prayer, while the others I reach for as explanations.
And I'm not saying that now that I know Emily Dickinson might not have been as ethereal a creature as her popular image I understand why those poets and English lit majors had a thing for her.
I'm not expecting or saying anything. I'm just typing. It's time for me to stop.
Adam Flint's other favorite poet is T.S. Eliot.
His favorite playwrights are Arthur Miller and William Inge.
Which shows how times change. All the cops I know read Wallace Stevens and prefer Ionesco and Brecht.